Ideological Constructions of Childhood
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The theoretical conceptualisation of children and childhood in the social sciences has traditionally been aligned to developmentalism and Socialisation theory. It is essentially this theoretical orientation that has spawned contemporary social discourses on children and childhood. Within this framework, children are typically perceived as immature, irrational, incompetent, asocial and acultural and have consequently contributed to the social and political marginalisation of children. Recent theorists have shown, through a process of deconstructing dominant scientific discourses on childhood, how the concept functions ideologically to establish taken-for-granted meanings about children. The present study is attempting to explore the ways in which children themselves construct and mobilise meanings of childhood. Using the social constructionist theoretical framework as a point of departure, the primary aim of the study is to explore the extent to which the meanings that children assign to ‘childhood’ are ideologically configured. More specifically, using the concept of well-being as a hermeneutic key, the study examines how children use specific discursive resources and repertoires to assign meaning to ‘childhood’. It is essentially offering an ideological analysis through an elucidation of the existing power relations between children and society and how these relations are perpetuated and manifested in children’s discourses. At the methodological level, the study is premised on working from the perspectives of children, thereby advancing a child participation framework. Key epistemological and methodological questions are explored with specific reference to the role of the child participation model as the methodological point of departure. A qualitative methodological approach is followed using focus groups as the data collection method. A series of focus groups was conducted with 56 thirteen year old children, from urban and rural geographical locations in the Western Cape. Thompson’s (1990) depth hermeneutics, which provides a critical and systematic interpretive framework for the analysis of ideological constructions, was utilised within a discourse analysis framework to analyze and interpret the findings. The key finding of the study was that the meanings that children assign to childhood are ideologically configured. The essence of this configuration is adult society’s mobilization and control of the meanings of childhood, which functions to maintain relations of domination. The outcome of this on children’s meaning assignation and constructions of childhood is characterized by a consensus/contestation dichotomy as children appear to both accept and resist the ideology. This emerges at the intrapersona level (within the consciousness of children), the interpersonal level (between children) and societal level (between children and adult society). The study concludes by advancing the notion that childhood should be conceived of as an ideological configured construction, and not merely as a discursive construction, functioning within various social contexts. Thus, the meanings of childhood, whether constructed by, or present in discourses, cannot be independent from the ideologically configured social, historical and material structures. It is believed that this theoretical maneuver will bring theories of childhood into better alignment with practical actions resulting in opportunities for intervention, services, monitoring and research initiatives, as well as policy development and implementation, aimed at improving child and youth wellness.